Bruce Hall’s 2013 production of Michael Gow’s play Away was, despite some bumps along the way, a solid and enjoyable piece of theatre. Set in the late 1960s, the melodrama follows the struggles of three families during their Christmas holiday in North Queensland. What follows are a series of personal conflicts, dark revelations, and deep moments of self-realisation. You all know the drill.
Away is one of the most widely produced Australian plays of all time, and a staple of the High School Certificate syllabus. I went into it half-fearing that it would turn out to be a sloppy, stilted high school-esque production. Thankfully, I was proven wrong for the most part. Director Ryan Godfrey has been largely successful in crafting an engaging and thematically interesting character drama.
Although the props, set design, and sound effects felt somewhat ad hoc, this was more than compensated by the emotional interplay among the lead actors. There were some memorable and endearing quiet moments between characters, as well as explosive scenes of altercation. The four actors that played the parents were especially delightful to watch. In particular, Matthew Allanby and Ali McMaster were wonderfully at ease with their eccentric yet believable characters. The standout of the show was undoubtedly Hannah Roberts, whose performance as the broken and grieving Coral made the other characters pale in comparison.
That being said, I wished some scenes could have been allowed to breathe a little bit. Too often, they felt rushed and underdeveloped. While emotional outbursts are entertaining to watch, they need to be supported by subtler moments where the interplay between characters occurs under a veneer of normalcy. Taking these moments away is like draining the liquid from a vessel in which particles are suspended. All you are left with are desiccated and forgettable lumps of histrionics.
It is a damn pity then that the third act turns into complete schlock. Much of the emotional build-up dissipated for me when the play degenerated at its climax into a bizarre and thematically dissonant mess. How could this happen? Could it be that Michael Gow is a talentless playwright who has duped us with a mishmash of hackneyed family drama? Unfortunately, a far more plausible answer is simply that some of the more nuanced facets of the play got lost in translation during its production.
Yet when Joe Dodds’ character speaks the final, sombre line of the play, I genuinely felt a tingle down my spine. Ultimately, despite my reservations, the play offered engaging and relatable characters that I cared about, and in that respect it was a success. Let us all hope that Bruce Hall continues its steady and respectable climb towards a higher calibre of residential college performing arts.